Everyone loves a good day off

Some of you may have missed it, but the week began with the news that voters in Switzerland have just rejected a proposal to give themselves more annual leave. The Swiss decide such matters for themselves through a national referendum, so it wasn't the government that determined that switching from four weeks' vacation a year to six would be too unproductive.

Instead every adult citizen of the Swiss Confederation had a say on a proposal, put forward by a non-governmental group, that Switzerland should join the rest of Western Europe in mandating six weeks off for workers every year.

A national campaign followed, in which business groups warned voters about the costs the additional holidays would add to the economy, and the famously Calvinist and conservative Swiss decided they agreed with them. So no extra holidays. 

Good day off

Good day off

The Swiss are known for their respect for self-disciple and the Protestant work ethic, so this is not too much of a surprise. Indeed, the attitude to holidays says something about national character. The USA generally permits only two weeks' paid leave a year, rising to four with seniority.

I once suggested that, of all the various ways of measuring the relative under-development of nations, from GNP tables to the Human Development Index, the most useful one that I could imagine constructing would be a Holiday Index. Whereas America, with its paucity of holidays, would score poorly on the Index, I think we in India would do pretty well on it. But that's not necessarily a good thing.

Festivals and melas define our need for escape, and I sometimes suspect that India has more of them than any other country. A look at the Government of India's official list of holidays also suggests that we are also entitled to take more time off than any other country in the world.

Indians contemplate a calendar that offers a choice of 44 official holidays for a variety of religious and secular occasions, ranging from Independence and Republic Days to three kinds of Eid - Eid-ul- Fitr, Eid-ul-Zuha, and Eid-e-Milad, the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed. Whereas Western dictionaries describe secularism as the absence of religion, our secularism favours a multitude of religions: the birthdays of Guru GobindSingh, Guru Ravidas, and even Maharishi Valmiki are legitimate excuses to have a day off, as are the ascensions of Buddha, Christ and Mahavira.

Going a step further, we honour the gods Shiva and Ganesh by according official holidays to the festivals of Mahashivaratri and Ganesh Chathurthi, respectively. Throw in the Parsi New Year and the Shia Muharram, and you can see how secularism has deferred to religion, to the benefit of the indolent of all faiths.

But of course the secular harvest festivals are celebrated too - check out Dussehra, Onam, Pongal and Baisakhi. And don't forget the birthday of that eclectic spiritualist Mahatma Gandhi. Deepavali, our festival of lights, may not be entirely secular, despite all the godless gambling it encourages, but Holi is just a Dionysian spring festival and Raksha Bandhan a non-denominational day of brotherhood: we can take them off too. We flock in our millions to the Kumbh mela and other religious gatherings; we overflow the maidans for our regular Ram-lilas in every little town.

And when it comes to holidays, who needs an occasion? Add to all these official tamashas the 104 weekend days, annual leave, casual leave, compassionate leave and sick leave, and it is perfectly possible for a governmentemployee to work just one-third of the days on the calendar and legitimately collect a full year's salary. And I have not even counted days lost due to strikes, hartals, bandhs, lockouts and the like. Or the "unofficial holidays" that are taken in every office around the country when there is a cricket Test match or one-day international on television, and people report to work in body but focus their minds, and as far as possible their eyes, on the distant pitch.

Shakespeare, who had a thought for every issue and an epigram for every thought, pointed out that "If all the year were playing holidays,/To sport would be as tedious as to work." (Henry IV, Pt I, Act I, Scene II, for pedantic readers). But he hadn't met the Indian holiday-maker: our capacity for celebration is truly undimmed by repetition. Had old William seen the enthusiasm with which our youths spray coloured water on female strangers or the lakhs thronging our melas from Pushkar to Prayag, he would undoubtedly have agreed that age cannot wither, nor custom stale, the infinite variety of our holidays.

So India, I suspect, would ride high on the Holiday Index. I wonder how Bangladesh or Burkina Faso (Africa) would fare. My wholly unscientific theory is that the poorer the country, the more holidays it gives itself, and the more festivals it conducts.

Productivity might suffer from so many absences, but part of the problem is that we are not producing all that much anyway when we work, so that we don't lose all that much when we don't.

But wait a minute: perhaps I am being too much of a materialist here. Is it that we are poor because we have so many holidays, or that we have so many holidays because we are poor?

Festivals and melas - mass gatherings of the many united around a common festive event - are the holiday occasions of the poor. The rich have no shortage of opportunities to enjoy themselves by themselves, whereas the poor have few outlets and pleasures other than communal ones.

For an Indian villager, a day at the local mela is his opera-ticket, tennis tourney and beach vacation rolled into one - and in celebrating it, he experiences some of the happiness that Thomas Jefferson told rich Americans it was the duty of government to allow them to pursue.

So poor countries - or at least countries with poor people - need more holidays and public festivals to give people the chance to amuse themselves than the rich ones do. Perhaps we should leave our holidays intact, after all.